The devil came to Fawn before Homecoming.
It was a busy time, what with the canned food drive and the coat drive and the decorating committee — and now Varla wasn’t speaking to her, maybe because Ricky, Varla’s boyfriend since forever, was speaking to her too much.
Not speaking exactly.
Ricky would find Fawn in a crowd, seek her out. She’d be walking to her locker in the crush between classes, and he would be there, behind her, breathing into her hair, mouthing words against her neck that might be lover, that might be loved, that might be lichen, it didn’t matter. The words themselves, the feel of his breath, pressing into the skin of her neck — it was like he was there, touching her without touching her, being on her without ever being on her.
Fawn was popular but not popular exactly. She was pretty but not the kind of pretty that mattered. Her hair was what teachers and older people called strawberry blond, with loose curls, the kind of curls that weren’t in. Only straight hair was in, and pale, clear skin, which Fawn didn’t have, and heavy eyeliner, which didn’t work on her. Fawn remembered Varla, when they used to talk, slamming her locker door and saying, “Fawn, you have the kind of face you don’t need to wear makeup.”
Was Varla being nice or insulting? Often, you couldn’t tell. Much in the way in some lights Varla looked gorgeous with sea-creature eyes, her skin like a paper flower, something Fawn would fold on the decorating committee, something to be placed in the center of a table. Other times, Fawn would look at Varla sideways in choir, where they sat beside each other, both second sopranos, and Varla would look hideous: pinched face and thin lips and no chin to speak of.
Fawn was pretty sure, despite what her boyfriend may or may not be doing to you, you were not supposed to think your best friend was hideous.
And maybe that was why the devil had come to Fawn.
Fawn had never really noticed Mr. Kelly. She went out of her way not to notice him: a hunched man, limbs like a Daddy Long Legs, who kept to the corners of things, the end of the hall where it was dim and red; he never bothered to replace the bulbs. He was always wiping something or scrubbing something or varnishing or something else, his hands occupied with power scrubbers, mops, split-handled brooms. Until the afternoon his hands were free, and Fawn noticed they were red.
She tripped on the floor, and the box in her hands — fall-colored streamers — went sailing.
Mr. Kelly watched her fall. He watched her slide to her knees, and begin to gather the decorations, then he emerged from the corner like a spider from a hole. He knelt too and helped.
“You going down to the boiler room?” His breath was sweet, and had a flavor, like cherry.
“No,” Fawn said.
“You going down to smoke?”
“No, I don’t smoke. I’m on the decorating committee.”
“I know what committee you’re on,” Mr. Kelly said.
Fawn was looking down. She saw his red skin. She saw his fingers were stained with brown.
“If you want to smoke, I can help you. I can stand guard for you.”
“I know you, Fawn. You’re not like others. You’re a good kid.”
People said that. Teachers said that. They said she would get the attention she deserved in college. They said she had the kind of smarts that this town just didn’t appreciate, the kind of beauty that high school boys just didn’t get. The guidance counselor, Mrs. Whitaker, who sang a contemporary Christian song every year at the non-religious holiday assembly, said Fawn was a late bloomer. She said this when Fawn announced her decision to apply to women-only colleges, maybe just the Nazarene college on the hill.
“Oh Fawn,” Mrs. Whitaker said. “You don’t mean that. Is this about Varla? Sometimes it’s hard being in someone else’s shadow. But you won’t be second fiddle forever. You’ll come into your own.”
Your own? Your own? What did that mean? What was Fawn’s own? What belonged to Fawn? Not student council (Varla was president). Not the committees (Fawn was just a member). Not Ricky.
“I don’t smoke,” Fawn said again, straightening.
Mr. Kelly rose too. “Well, what do you do?”
Maybe Ricky practiced astral projection, and that was how he could come to her without coming to her, that was how he could be inside of her all the time — in her head, in her clothes, in the scratchy places where the tag on her clothes met skin. Fawn had learned of astral projection at the Psychic Fair, which came to the Holiday Inn, in the beer-stained ballroom. It was Varla’s idea to go.
“Am I going to be famous?” Varla asked the tarot card reader, a woman with pin curls and purple-tinted reading glasses on a chain. She looked more like a grandmother then a psychic, Fawn thought. “Am I going to have success in music?”
“Yes,” the woman said slowly, turning over cards, “though not for a very long time.”
“Will I find love?” Fawn asked when it was her turn, when she had paid her five dollars, putting the money into a goldfish bowl on the women’s table, and Varla had snorted.
The woman seemed confused. “Is there something specific you’re looking for? Something different? I’m not seeing the usual things for you.”
The psychic flipped over cards. Flip, flip. The cards made a crisp, sharp sound, a sound familiar to Fawn, though she didn’t know why.
Mr. Kelly seemed to be everywhere. Picking up cigarette butts under the bleachers during gym class when Fawn huffed through the track on The Mile. Washing the windows of her Geometry class. Cleaning the outside of the lockers with vinegar in a spray bottle, a sharp yellow smell that made Fawn wrinkle her nose when she passed.
“I’ve got a cigarette for you,” Mr. Kelly said.
Fawn stopped. She turned around. “Mr. Kelly, I don’t know who you’re confusing me with, but I don’t smoke.”
“I’m not confusing you with anyone, Fawn.”
“Please just leave me alone.”
Hadn’t she said that to Ricky? Hadn’t she asked him point blank, just asked him?
“What will you give me if I do?” Ricky had said.
“I don’t know,” Fawn said.
Mr. Kelly said, “There’s something specific you’re looking for.”
Varla was a virgin. This was her darkest secret, Ricky confessed to Fawn. Varla herself talked endlessly to Fawn of pills and couches and cars. She had told Fawn — during choir, when they were practicing in the auditorium, a dress rehearsal for the Homecoming assembly, where the lights were going haywire, gels falling down during solos, while Mr. Dawsom, the spasmodic, permed teacher, yelled at the boys in the control booth — that she had had to have her stomach pumped at the hospital the previous weekend.
“Why?” Fawn asked.
“Swallowed too much,” Varla said. Her eyes were solemn and she had no chin. “It builds up, you know. It builds up and it just explodes.”
“Oh,” Fawn said.
It wasn’t until the end of practice — which had to be cut short because Julie Delphinium, who had low blood sugar and shouldn’t have been on the top riser, fainted on a row of altos — when Varla told her she was just kidding, just kidding. No one had their stomach pumped from that, how ridiculous, how naïve could Fawn be; it hardly even had any calories.
“I know that,” Fawn said.
But Ricky said Varla was saving herself for college, maybe marriage, maybe Ricky — or maybe another boy she met later on, the marrying type, Varla said. Ricky said he was dying from lack of love. “Help me, Fawn. You have to help me. I’m dying here.”
And it certainly seemed like he was dying the way he wept. He actually cried into his hands, his head on Fawn’s lap as they sat on the picnic table outside of Dekker’s Ice Cream. It was fall; Dekker’s was closed, the picnic table chained to a tree. Fawn thought they might talk; she had thought that was why he had asked her to come up here, but he talked about Varla only. “She winds me up,” he said. “She winds me up and up and just leaves. It’s different for girls. They don’t feel like guys do.”
And maybe that was true. Fawn certainly felt nothing when his hands that had been balled into fists, rubbing hard at his wet eyes, unclenched and went after her hands, grabbing them at the wrists. Her buttons pinged off. Slip, slip, like shuffling cards. She felt not fear or confusion, not dread. She felt not the wind on her chest. She seemed to lose her ability to speak or cry out or make even the most trembling of breaths.
She heard only — that was her last sense; she could hear.
She heard Ricky say, “I really don’t want to do this, Fawn.” She heard a girl say — was it Fawn, or another girl she heard say so softly, so understanding and dull: “I know.”
It was in the boiler room; Mr. Kelly said she would have to go down to the boiler room. Fawn said, “What will you give me if I go there?”
“I don’t know,” Mr. Kelly said.
The boiler room was just like girls said. Down a set of rickety wood stairs, the room lit only from a single bulb in the ceiling. The light bulb was red, so maybe that was why Mr. Kelly’s arm looked red as he guided her down the steps. The hair on his arm was thick and black. It stood out against his skin like coals.
The boiler took up most of the room, the belching, rag-wrapped machine, but there were also buckets with mops standing up in them, big rolls of brown paper towels. Mr. Kelly had made a little space for himself behind the boiler with a green army cot discarded from the nurse’s office: torn in the middle, green bulge hanging down. There was a radio, a stack of magazines. The magazines had girls on them.
The boiler room was pulsating with heat like a heart. It smelled of the orange powder Mr. Kelly used to clean up vomit.
Fawn turned around, taking everything in, as if she was making up her mind about an apartment. Yes, this will do. This will do nicely. Her shoes spun on the concrete. She said, “You can fix the Homecoming ballot, Mr. Kelly. You carry the ballot box from the cafeteria to the principal’s office. I’ve seen you do it. You have the keys to the padlock the box is locked with. You can unlock the box. You can stuff some ballots into the box for me.”
“Who do you want to win, Fawn?” Mr. Kelly asked.
It might have been bearable, it might have been survivable, if Ricky had stopped after the night at the picnic table, if that had been enough for him, that one time, but it wasn’t. It was like that night had unlocked something in him, and once it was open, he couldn’t shut it again. It roared out of him, at the worst times, at every time. He came up to Fawn in the hall. He surprised her at her locker. He could lean down and whisper without being seen. He could reach over in a crowd and find her bra strap, his fingers digging into the space beneath her shirt, the pushing, impatient stream of people in the hallways hiding him. Often she didn’t see him or anyone at all; she just felt the whisper in her hair, felt the finger in her shirt, found the dead red sycamore leaf pressed between the slats in her locker. When she picked the leaf up, it crumbled to bits on the ground.
Mr. Kelly swept it up.
If Varla won, she would be so excited, she would be so relieved, it would confirm everything: that she was the prettiest, she was the most popular, she was secured of success, at least in the short term. Surely college would follow for the Homecoming queen, and marriage, and babies, and Fawn knew Varla would want to celebrate. With Ricky. They would all get what they wanted, if Varla was Homecoming queen: Varla, Ricky, and Fawn.
Mr. Kelly said he would do it, said it was simple, too simple. “Are you sure that’s all you want?” His brows knitted. He looked like Mrs. Whitaker for a second, so caring and worried, so full of concern. “I can change your grades for you. I know the office password.”
“My grades are fine,” Fawn said.
“I could can your least favorite teacher for you. I could take care of that boy for you.”
“What boy?” Fawn said. She flipped her hair back over her shoulder, something she had seen Varla do. Mr. Kelly couldn’t know about Ricky, could he? “No. I want the homecoming queen. You do that for me.”
Mr. Kelly’s eyes sparked, as if the boiler was a real fire that could throw off heat and light, make strange shadows on the walls.
Fawn stood on ladders and tapped streamers to beams. Fawn folded a hundred flowers. The theme of the dance was Fall Fantasy—not her choice, and she was not sure what it meant exactly, only that the decorating committee had had to make papier-mâché tree trunks and order plastic stumps and feather masks and fake leaves from the Oriental Trading Company.
Fake leaves were nothing like real leaves. They were silken, soft, with frayed edges. The decorating committee was supposed to scatter them on the ground, but some of the teachers were worried girls would trip in their high heels: trip on the slippery leaves and the slick, waxed gym floor. They were probably right. So what. Fawn dumped a whole box of the fake things on the floor.
One leaf was stuck to the side of the box. She lifted it out and rubbed it between her thumb and index finger. The leaf made no sound.
When the Homecoming court was announced, Fawn was in homeroom. The speaker buzzed, a static hum, then the principal came over the intercom, clearing his throat.
Varla, sitting in the row next to Fawn, grabbed her hand. “Shh,” Varla said. “Shh, everybody.”
Laughter in the classroom. Varla was beautiful and in charge, but not especially liked. That was the danger in letting the votes speak for themselves; there might not be enough. Fawn could see kids wanting to teach Varla a lesson, wanting to put her in her place.
“Guys, seriously. Shh,” Varla said.
A few boys mocked her, slurring: Shhh. Guys sriously.
Fawn turned to the back of the room. Ricky’s yellow head perked up. His eyes, so small they were nearly colorless, sought hers. Quick as a lizard, his tongue shot out, ran across his lips.
Varla squeezed Fawn’s hand and yanked her back. The principal was reading off girls’ names, mispronouncing every third one. Varla had her eyes closed, muttering under her breath. Was she actually praying? How could she want something this much? And when would Fawn find that thing, her own thing, the thing she would want more than life itself? Was it as simple as this: Please leave me alone. Could that be a wish?
The principal had finished announcing the princesses. “Now, your runner-up for Homecoming Queen, the finalist who will step into the role should the queen be unable to perform any of her duties: Varla Ketchup.”
“All right, Varla!” Ricky began to applaud, meatily, then stopped, his hands still pressed together when Varla swiveled back to glare at him.
The principal was still speaking. “And now, what we’ve all been waiting for. The votes have been counted. Your Federal-York Fall Fantasy Homecoming Queen is...Fawn Tapp.”
No applause. No sound at all.
Feedback from the intercom.
Varla dropped Fawn’s hand as if it had turned to ice. She wiped, she actually wiped, her fingers on her skirt, hissing, “Fawn? Fawn?”
“Will the Homecoming Queen, runner-up, and princess court please report immediately to the office for pictures?” the principal said.
Fawn got up without a word. She was conscious that Varla was also rising, that Varla was walking behind her as Fawn pushed out of the classroom door and into the wide, polished hall. Further down the hallway, other doors were opening. Other girls were making their way to the office to be posed and photographed.
“Fawn!” Varla said at Fawn’s back again. “What did you do?”
But then, another door opened. Another voice said, “Fawn, honey. Now.”
Which was better, to stay in the hall with a girl she had betrayed without ever meaning to — or to go down, down the hot boiler beating?
Varla’s eyes were black, and her hair was like black fire. “Fawn, get back here!” she said. “We have to talk about this! We have to talk about Ricky! I know about Ricky!”
The name hung in the air and echoed, even after the door to the boiler room was shut and locked (why did it have a lock?), and Fawn’s shoes went slip, slip, like cards down the stairs.
There was cot, but no carpet.
“You didn’t give me what I want,” Fawn said.
“You don’t know what you want,” the devil said.
He was red. He was all red, even the cigarette he placed in her mouth. And what went down her throat was fire. And he cried, not like Ricky. He cried: “Come into your own, Fawn. Come into your own.”
Alison Stine's most recent book is The Protectors (Little A, 2016), an illustrated novella about graffiti artists in Appalachia. Also a visual artist, she lives with her son in the Appalachian foothills and works as a reporter.